Single-winner reform and why FairVote supports instant runoff voting

by Rob Richie // Published October 14, 2009

FairVote works on a range of electoral reforms, of course, but there is one where we have been a national leader and been making particular progress: instant runoff voting (IRV). There are opponents of the system, however, so here is a line of argument for why we support IRV, using two current election stories from Albuquerque (NM) and New Jersey as concrete examples.

1. As a preface, every voting system for a single winner office presents apparent contradictions and paradoxes. Nobel Prize winner Kenneth Arrow has a theorem proving how every ranked ballot system presents paradoxes, while every non-ranked voting reform proposal violates the later-no-harm criteria (where indicating support for a lesser choice counts against your top choice, which, as explained in my recent article for Minnesota Public Radio, results in tactical voting and unfair results).

2. As a result of this fact, defenders of the status quo can focus on the paradoxes associated with any given alternative system and make them seem outlandish. But the debate instead should be about comparing paradoxes and seeing which ones are more problematic. Perfection is impossible.

3. The plurality voting status quo is highly problematic, with straightforward problems. Plurality winners in multi-candidate races often are clearly the wrong winners. One example was last week's mayoral election in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The incumbent, a Latino Democrat, faced another Latino Democrat and a white Republican. The Latino candidates together won 56% of the vote, but the Republican won. In a traditional runoff or an instant runoff, the Republican almost certainly would have lost.

Another common problem with plurality voting is apparent in the current New Jersey governor's race. Democratic incumbent Jon Corzine lacks majority support based on his record, while Republican challenger Chris Christie knows that the New Jersey electorate at this point is not majority Republican -- both are stuck at about 40% support. As a result, their campaigns are based primarily on how bad their opponent is. Independent Chris Daggett gained attention in a recent debate and is generally recognized as talking more substantively about issues than his opponents. While relatively strong, however, Daggett's poll numbers at 14% remain below the level that he is considered viable. He's in a catch-22, as it's hard to build support when not polling higher, and a New York Times article on Monday suggested his primary role is likely to be that of a "spoiler." No matter what one thinks of the frontrunners, it would be fairer for Daggett not to be tagged as a spoiler, and to be judged on his merits as a candidate for governor. The major party candidates would be more accountable to voters and more likely to have to present substantive proposals.

4. Both the Albuquerque "wrong winner" problem and the New Jersey "spoiler" problem would be well addressed with either instant runoff voting or traditional runoff elections where winners need 50%-plus-one of the initial vote to win -- with the top two candidates from the first round facing off in the second if no candidate were to win a majority. Either approach would have provided a more accurate result in Albuquerque, while Daggett would be considered on his qualifications in New Jersey. Note that the only alternatives to plurality voting in one-winner governmental offices around the world are two-round runoffs or instant runoff elections.

5.Both runoff elections and instant runoff voting share exactly the same paradoxes highlighted by some critics of instant runoff voting, such as "nonmonotoncity."  In both runoffs and IRV, there are scenarios where elimination of a strong opponent would help a favorite candidate or second favorite candidate win instead of a least favorite. And theoretically, switching a vote to an insincere preference could lead to that result. But  (and this is critically important) it is extremely hard and counter-intuitive to figure out these scenarios before an election in order to game the election. It is even harder to then engage in manipulative strategic voting and practically impossible with instant runoff voting. With a traditional runoff, a manipulative group of voters could support a weak opponent in the first round and change to their true favorite in the second round of voting, whereas with IRV any such attempt at manipulation is likely to backfire because voters can't change their first choice between rounds of counting.

6. Meanwhile, plurality voting is much worse in very well documented and common scenarios. The Albuquerque elections were an example of a likely undemocratic result where quite possibly the candidate who was the least favorite of a majority of voters was elected. Plurality voting will much more frequently lead to such undemocratic outcomes, and it always will risk putting darkhorse candidates into the spoiler role.

7. In the choice between runoffs and instant runoff voting, runoff elections can have large disparities in voter turnout between rounds, nearly double the cost of what candidates spend to win the seat and cost taxpayers much more money. Those realities are why Americans generally have moved away from traditional runoffs for state and federal general elections (they were used for many congressional elections in the 1800s, for example), just as New York City is seriously talking about doing away with its runoff after its low-turnout, expensive, and highly negative primary runoffs last month.

Instant runoff voting addresses the chief flaws of plurality voting and accomplishes it with voters making one trip to the polls. FairVote is not alone in suggesting IRV for this reason. It is used by dozens of major private associations and is laid out as a recommended alternative by Robert's Rules of Order. It is used by more than 50 American colleges and universities and by several nations for high-level office. The British prime minister just committed to a national referendum on adopting IRV for electing the House of Commons.

8. Some opponents of IRV want to keep plurality voting or runoff elections. Others suggest that people instead go to other systems (examples being approval voting and range voting) that have no track record in governmental elections and hardly any meaningful experience in private elections.  But just as backers of range voting and approval voting can try to mock instant runoff voting, their preferred systems can be easily mocked -- and with flaws that have far more serious consequences. One readily apparent feature of approval voting and range voting makes them hard to imagine being adopted in the U.S.: the candidate who would finish dead last in a plurality race can win under these systems - for instance, a candidate could win who would have finished last in a race where under our current rules the results were 51% to 40% to 9%. Another is that a candidate with 45% support can easily defeat a candidate with 55% in a two-candidate race. Furthermore , because indicating support for a lesser choice counts directly against your favorite choice (violating the later-no-harm criteria, as referenced earlier), these systems also lead to immediate incentives to vote insincerely, unlike instant runoff voting where theoretical scenarios are too convoluted to affect voter behavior.

9. In short, if you're looking for something perfect, you're not going to find it. If you're looking for something better than plurality voting and more viable than runoff elections or more arcane alternatives, instant runoff voting indeed should be your first choice.